True Lines Not Mere Sentences: Renee Ashley on Dennis Hinrichsen’s Kurosawa’s Dog


Dennis Hinrichsen, Kurosawa’s Dog, Oberlin College Press

**some of the poetry quoted below has had its formatting altered**

Here’s the image that spans the second, and last, section break in Hinrichsen’s “Crazy Horse Mountain” which appears near the end of his new, his fifth, collection, Kurosawa’s Dog:

Just now, the moon


has let fly its glass horse
over the Dakotas…

It’s not only a memorable image—so visual I don’t think I’ll ever forget it—but its placements are brilliant, a subtle verbal land- and skyscape of its tenor and vehicle. The sections, enjambed and tightly packed, allow for the clean separation of tenor and vehicle, of subject from verb, all three line enjambments themselves breaking at their nouns, the splitting of “the moon” from its terrestrial image “its glass horse” by a delicate little sun-like dingbat (much more delicate and suggestive than the asterisk I’ve used here), and “moon” hovering over “horse” as though the moon is keeping just a few steps ahead. And that only begins to point out the characteristic web of intricacies that Hinrichsen weaves into this vital and surprising book.

When you pull back a bit, you realize that this same passage is a manifestation of one of the three-step stanzas (in various formations) that Hinrichsen frequently favors and uses, as he does all his formattings, to exquisite advantage. The stanza that preceded this one:

hail dotting the body, rider shaken so fiercely
his loose hair
was the wing of a hawk…

And the two that followed:

filling the campsite with arctic light,
though the air
is 90, and the tent

is folding like my mind
with the wind.
Sometimes lying down so flat

Hinrichsen’s lines are true lines not mere sentences broken into bits – the piece is packed with image and speed. There’s no rhetorical bagginess, no slack to slow the poem down or fill in the cracks; Hinrichsen makes the reader lean into each line and then even more steeply into the next without pause.

The volume is nearly bookended by “Bresson’s Donkey,” an allusion to Bresson’s film Au Hasard Balthazar and the title poem, “Kurosawa’s Dog,”a reference to Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. “Bresson’s Donkey” begins, again with Hinrichsen’s three-step stanzas, like this:

I could believe in Jesus if there were an animal
to be beaten
down, all

that bagpipe braying from the gut’s
spiritual core
hauling some Boschian tower of hay

Animals, spirit, and allusion run rich throughout the volume which treats, either directly or indirectly, the death of the narrator’s father; the “Boschian” allusion summons up even more visions of what is tightly packed and grotesque. The poem’s about the experience of taking it in, the great abstractions that hide in the shade of emblem and metaphor. Here is the beginning of “Kurosawa’s Dog”:

Even though he’s dead, my father dreams repeatedly
of the Eisenhower era.
The clarity of fresh concrete spanning the Great Plains.

Hinrichsen has a seemingly infallible sense of formatting and the use of white space. Here’s the first eight lines of “Lion and Gin,” a poem, as opposed to his triadic stanzas, that maintains a rigid left margin and is presented in a solid block:

I pet my father like some big cat a hunter has set on the ground,
though I am in Iowa now and not the Great Rift Valley
and what I sense as tent canvas flapping, thick with waterproofing,
is cheap cotton
choked with starch.
Still, he is a lion on the gurney.
I talk a little to make sure he’s dead.

Just slightly looser, these lines need their proximities; the air of his three-steps would shatter its effect. There’s more here between the here and the there of the images. These lines need the rolling quality of the singular stanza unbroken by the white pause. The reader here passes through many more gates, many more levels of entry, to get to the impact point—important gates, and gates that keep throwing the reader forward because of the suspense caused by what is being withheld. Hinrichsen doesn’t give the reader a chance to focus his attention outside the poem, but forces that attention with its built-in sense of urgency to reach the pay-off. The nuance and tonal coloring comes from what follows the seemingly simple subject-verb-object beginning, “I pet my father.” In this short, seven-line beginning, the steps of remove, or what I call the gates, work like this: First gate: the word like which sets us one remove away from the thing itself. The second gate: some big cat. Then, moving to third gate, another remove: a hunter. The fourth gate, the action of that hunter, has set on the ground, one step further. The fifth gate: though which gives us a little twist in the road. Sixth gate: I am in Iowa now. Seventh gate: and not the Great Rift Valley, which twists again. Eighth gate: and what I sense moves us again, this time into the interior. Ninth gate: as tent canvas flapping, the simile that pushes us into the figurative again. Tenth gate: thick with waterproofing, expanding on the diversion. Eleventh gate: is cheap cotton, another step of diversion. And another, the twelfth gate: choked with starch.

Now notice that the eleventh and twelfth gates are one-to-a-line and the lines themselves are far shorter than the ones that come before. Why? Because, I’m certain, “is cheap cotton choked with starch” is k-sound and ch-sound heavy. Putting it all on a single line would draw attention to it as such (“Look how many c’s I can put in a line!) —a potential bad move in a poem that’s sounding natural despite its compression. Separating those two lines lets the “cheap” and the “choked” work together without tangling our tongues; it puts an emphasis on “choked” at the beginning of the twelfth line, playing beautifully into the death theme but via displacement to the “cotton.” By the time we get to the thirteenth gate, that Still, we’re ready for the final turn back around to the beginning. Our ears and our attentions have been brought to a near halt by the two short lines and that still is like a graceful turn to what we don’t expect at the fourteenth gate: he is a lion on the gurney. There’s a little slow-down again at the fifteenth gate: “I talk a little,” a little making-us-wait, and then the point of it all, and the sixteenth gate: “to make sure he’s dead.” A sort of periodic sentence approach to the dispersal of vital information.

That’s impressive.

Hinrichsen is a masterful poet with an exquisite ear and the capability of rendering the familiar magical. The interplays—the talent and craft demonstrated in this volume—are many-layered, complex, and deeply satisfying. This is work that will hold up to the rereadings and deep scrutiny it will rightly find. Hinrichsen is superb. Kurosawa’s Dog is a longtime companion.


Renée Ashley is the author of four volumes of poetry–Salt (Brittingham Prize in Poetry, University of Wisconsin Press), The Various Reasons of Light, The Revisionist’s Dream, and Basic Heart (X. J. Kennedy Prize, Texas Review Press)–as well as a chapbook, The Museum of Lost Wings, and a novel, Someplace Like This. She has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and is on the core faculty of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s low-residency Program in Creative Writing.